Unearthing a city’s past: the archaeology of Little Lonsdale Street

First published in Habitat Australia, 1990.

It’s called the Body Corporate, the staff gym at Price Waterhouse, the transnational firm of accountants on the corner of Melbourne’s Spring and Lonsdale Streets. There’s this guy on the floor pumping metal in his lunch hour. Can’t stop to talk because his heart rate’ll drop. Soon he’ll slip into the change room – quick shower and blow dry, white shirt, silk tie and dark suit – and emerge again as a post-industrial executive.

He’ll return to his desk somewhere below and the lift will talk to him. “Going down” it will say, in a satin female voice. “Have a nice day.” And he’ll glide along the designer carpeted corridor, through the post modern art deco chambers, past the fresh florist flowers, and take his seat before his visual display terminal for an afternoon of cost benefit analysis.

Though he may rarely take his eyes from his screen to gaze through the plate glass windows, this man has the history of Melbourne before him, as told in stone, bricks and cement. At middle distance the wedding cake dome of the Exhibition Building surrounded by its old elms that ache with the nostalgia of our European cultural heritage. A little closer, two edifices which speak of a more recent but less romantic past: the grim modernist Telecom Exchange tower and the now deserted asbestos ridden public service building known with nil affection, as the “green latrine”.

In the foreground, storeys below, relics from a different heritage hunch, derelict and bedraggled, in a pitted landscape that looks like Beirut or Massawa after the bombings. These old buildings, right in the heart of the Central Activities District, somehow won the game of demolition roulette that randomly made car parks of everything else historic or beautiful on the block. Their empty shells are now all we have left of the Back Slums of nineteenth century Melbourne.

This whole city block, once home to 10-15,000 people, was acquired by the Commonwealth in 1948 and since then, its future has been debated by two generations of politicians, bureaucrats, architects and urban planners.

Over these three decades of indecision, society’s values have changed; we are now less eager than we once were to destroy our material links with the past. In this era of post-modernism, we have learned to integrate the old with the new. This means that the few stone and brick structures on this block that have survived less sympathetic times, are at last, safe. Their historic form will remain, but their function?

Ah, no more the Back Slums! These old buildings, including a tiny three room workers’ cottage originally built in 1850, are destined to become cafes and galleries and restaurants and boutique pubs and specialty shops for young transnational post-industrial executives from Price Waterhouse and thousands of public servants who will occupy the new office towers soon to emerge from the parking lots, and .

But the former residents of the Back Slums are not forgotten. They speak to us even yet through more than a century of time. Because one day, when plans were being formalised for the new office development, Ivar Nelsen, the Australian Construction Services’ heritage architect and environment officer, ticked a box marked “archaeological impact” on a Commonwealth procedures checklist. With this single enlightened stroke of a bureaucratic pen he initiated Australia’s largest urban archaeological excavation and salvage operation, and furthered the process of reconstructing Melbourne’s nineteenth and early twentieth century social history from the point of view of its slum dwellers.

Until now, the dominant perception of the lives of these people has been built on sensationalised descriptions of the Back Slums that appeared in the popular press of the day. This city block was, as colonial playwright Louis Essen wrote, “the mecca of all outcasts of society.” Here “respectable” people were garrotted and robbed, lured into Chinese opium dens or sly grog houses, and seduced in brothels. All the women were prostitutes and all the men were criminals. Collectively they were dismissed as “the lower classes.”

Stanley James, writing as The Vagabond in The Argus, May 26, 1878, claimed, with high minded indignation:

The habitations are mostly of a kind, one storeyed hovels, low, dilapidated and dirty. The surroundings are filth and garbage.

Go through these on a summer’s afternoon. The occupants you will see are mostly women and of a type – low, degraded, brutal looking who, young and old, see, as if virtue and purity have never been known to them even by name. Young girls – there are many here – have their freshness overshadowed by vice. The hovels which are small being generally tenanted by several couples, cause society in their neighbourhood to be of a very public kind, the doorsteps, the kerbstones, and the centre of the road forming a convenient resting place for the female population.

C. J. Dennis, as a down-and-out poet, found cheap lodgings in this ghetto and used it as a setting for much of his poetry. His Sentimental Bloke boasted that he “spen’s me leisure gittin’ on the shick, An’ ‘arf me nights down there, in Little Lons., Wiv Ginger Mick.” (This was the place too that Mother Mary McKillop, potentially Australia’s first saint, set up her school and soup kitchen for those who had fallen from grace.)

Dennis’ reference to “Little Lons”, (Little Lonsdale Street, once the main thoroughfare of this neighbourhood) gave the archaeological excavation its name and it is clear that the archaeologists and volunteers who worked on the Little Lons site sympathised more with C. J.’s gutsy celebration of the block and its residents than they did with The Vagabond’s middle class moralising.

“You wonder what happened to some of these people,” site director Justin McCarthy mused as he decoded their stories from the material culture they left behind. Broken crockery, old bottles, buttons, coins, clothes, the remains of people’s meals, marbles, trinkets, children’s toys – to an archaeologist, these artifacts read like a book to reveal how people once lived.

When artifacts are found in undisturbed layers of earth, clear inferences can be made about how they got there, who put them there and how they might have been used. In the Little Lons excavation, the demolition processes that reduced most of the site to car parks, disturbed all but a few structural remains and the deep features like the old cess pits or rubbish pits.

These pits were dug meticulously and the fill from them, including the original organic waste, was put through a froth flotation process to recover grains and fruit seeds, hair and other fibres, insect remains and small bones of rodents etc. These are still being analysed and are expected to reveal much about people’s diet and the changes that have taken place in Australian agriculture over the last century.

In one pit, Pit N, 8,000 artifacts were recovered. These included the remains of 26 shoes (19 men’s, 6 women’s and one child’s), pieces of three shirts (one flannel, one finely woven wool and one unidentified cloth), one shirt or blouse made from fine green cotton, one finely woven wool jacket, one dark grey knee length wool sock, two pairs of woollen trousers, pieces from unidentified clothes, a belt buckle, buttons made from a variety of materials including wood, white glass, shell, brass, bronze, ferrous metal, bone, ceramic and bakelite, and several coins, including an 1862 halfpenny, an 1835 shilling, an unidentifiable penny sized coin and a 1853 Swiss centime.

Also in this pit were 4,552 whole bottles or fragments of bottles, and 1,242 corks! According to their makers marks, most of the bottles were once filled with fine French champagne and other wines, including an 1815 Bordeaux vintage.

With careful academic conservatism, Justin stated in his five volume report on Stage 1 of the excavation: “It could well be that this location presents the profile of the material cultural remains of a brothel site,” though the evidence, he says, is “fairly circumstantial”!

He and his colleagues poured over old directories and Melbourne City Council rate books in the hope of matching the material culture recovered from the pits with actual people. Not surprisingly, there were no records of a brothel operating on the allotment associated with Pit N, though a “store” run there by a Mrs Bond and a “furniture mart” operated by a Mr Morris Cohen might have, in reality, been the kind of establishments that served, amongst other things, fine Bordeaux wine to clients.

Undeniably, the sex industry provided employment for many single women living on the excavation site in the nineteenth century. According to a Constable John Whyte, twenty four brothels operated on the block in 1884. Most of these were humble two or three room cottages shared by several women working together. Others were more “refined” establishments closely associated with the colony’s ruling elite. (Indeed, archaeologists and volunteers hoped they would unearth Victoria’s Parliamentary Mace which disappeared in one such brothel on the block after it was used in a mock session of Parliament there in October 1891.)

The conditions that most people endured in the Back Slums, whether they were workers in the sex industry, Chinese cabinet makers, Hindu hawkers, Syrian traders, blacksmiths, grocers, butchers, sly grog shop proprietors or people who just had to make a living any way they could, are hard for us to imagine today.

Here, a multicultural community lived in what we would consider Third World conditions – with high infant and maternal mortality, low literacy, excessive overcrowding, contaminated water, poor drainage and waste disposal, excessive air pollution, inadequate personal hygiene, typhoid each summer, dysentery, scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, tuberculosis; unemployment, hunger. A Royal Commission in 1889 reported that 70% of Victorians who died over the age of 20, died penniless. Their staple diet throughout their lives was considered worse than the food served to prisoners.

The archaeological record complements much of what we know of these people’s lives from historic documents, even the records of the stench of their polluted urban environment.

“When we pulled up some of the stones in a laneway, we found a hard black clay layer which would have been the old lane surface before it was pitched,” Justin McCarthy explained. “One day we had some rain and when the water got on this black layer, it was putrid. It just stank.”

This was the stench of overflowing cess pits and water closets, of human excrement mixed with horse manure from the streets, of blood and offal from the slaughter yard on the block, which, (according to a Melbourne Metroplitan Board of Works archive) flowed down the lanes, under the houses, and even through them. It was the stench of a rainy day in the slums of Melbourne in the mid to late nineteenth century. The smell of typhoid and of poverty.

The Little Lons excavation also revealed another past. Two large red gum stumps discovered in archaeological units 06 and 22 re-established the city’s link with the pre-European landscape the Wirundjeri people knew.

“One stump was under what were the foundations of the old Salvation Army Depot,” said David Banear who worked on the site. “A volunteer working with us was dying of leukemia and she was really touched by what she called the ‘female spirit’ of that tree. She helped get it out and always referred to it as ‘her’ tree. And the urban historian Patrick Miller was almost reduced to tears. He said he’d only seen Melbourne as old buildings before, but here was this old tree …”

“We exposed the roots and gave a bloke a beer to pull it out with his back hoe. It came out like a great tooth.

“That was one of the greatest moments in my life as an archaeologist,” David admitted. “It has been suggested the National Trust put the tree on its register and that Admin. Services put in their new building.”

From river red gums, to overcrowded slums (and bordellos serving vintage Bordeaux), to 40 storey office towers. From Aboriginal hunter gathers, to “outcasts of society,” to transnational post-industrial executives. Same place. Different times.

And the future for Little Lons?

You can get a glimpse of that, I’m afraid, at Rockman’s Regency Cafe across the road in Exhibition Street, where young suit and tied PIEs (post-industrial executives) meet now in their lunch hours. They perch on impossibly uncomfortable but very fashionable Italian wire stools and carelessly thumb through copies of Business Review Weekly or Vogue Living. Turkey breast on multigrain. Espresso. And, for something a little special – French champagne. Same place, different vintage. But what will the archaeological record say in another hundred years?

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Page posted on merrillfindlay.com on March 2004; revised 5 January 2005, and 21 January 2008. Reposted on this new web site 23 January 2011.

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